Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/November 1895/Recent Tendencies in the Education of Women

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1231127Popular Science Monthly Volume 48 November 1895 — Recent Tendencies in the Education of Women1895Mary Roberts Smith




THE first women who asked admission to colleges which offered a higher education to men were those whose strong individuality and distinctive intellectual bent demanded some other outlet than housekeeping for their energies. They wished to teach in the higher schools, or to enter the professions of literature, law, or medicine. That competition with men in these lines required better training than was afforded by the "female seminary" was obvious, and they naturally inferred that it was only to be had by means of the same curriculum as that which men pursued. These first women, therefore, applied themselves to mathematics, Greek, and Latin, and found in them satisfaction for hungry minds, if not a perfect equipment for their business in life. Although many of them afterward married, their strong intellectuality is clearly shown by the mark which they have left on their generation in some lines of professional labor.

At that time women were not prepared to question the methods of education; in such matters they were accustomed to be led by men, and what seemed good to men seemed doubly good to those to whom it was newly opened. Indeed, before the middle of this century it had not occurred to many minds that anything else than the classical curriculum could be the basis of a truly high education. What wonder, then, that women should eagerly seek that which men valued most?

When it had once been granted by even a small number of intelligent people that it might be desirable for some women to seek a higher education, the door was practically open to any ambitious girl who had the will-power to overcome prejudice at home and the pluck to endure the opposition and scorn of men at college. Coeducation was the outcome of this tendency to demand for women precisely the same kind of education as that which was offered to men. It is a significant fact that the early objections to it were primarily women's supposed physical inability and the danger to womanly character. The traditional curriculum was as well adapted to the needs of women as to the needs of men in nonprofessional occupations. It was rightly felt that there is a virtue in culture, irrespective of the aims of the individual.

By the Morrill Land Grant of 1862 coeducation was assured, potentially at least, in one institution in every State. The other provisions of the act, compelling the teaching of agriculture and the mechanic arts, also indicated the rise of a new and broader idea in education. The colleges thus founded were not intended primarily for rich men's children, but for the sons and daughters of the great middle class. Coeducation seems to have been a concession to the American sense of fairness. If the farmer's boy should have a school, then the farmer's girl must have a school too; it was obviously cheaper to educate them together, while social tradition, less developed among the farming classes and in the States west of New England, offered no obstacle to this purpose. While, therefore in New England coeducation was still mentioned with horror as an impropriety,[1] in the more crude and democratic West it was having a natural and wholesome growth.

The logical consequences of coeducation in these institutions were evidently not anticipated. The boy who went to the State college took lectures in scientific agriculture or mechanical engineering, with so many hours a day on the farm or in the shop, under a trained instructor; the girl who went to college took whatever was considered strictly ornamental in the course—French, literature, ancient history, rhetoric, with a certain number of hours per day of domestic work. But the hours of sweeping, bed-making, and dish-washing were illuminated by no application of scientific principles from the mind of a trained instructor. In fact, nobody knew very well what she was there for; it seemed only fair that she should "have a chance too," but a chance for what? Why, to marry, of course! But nobody ever said that aloud, and nobody thought of adapting her training to her probable and desirable business in life.

The West had solved the problem of woman's education by offering her the same curriculum under essentially the same conditions of life and discipline as those of men. The disasters to coeducation which had been prophesied had not occurred. Girls showed no physical or mental inability to endure the strain of college life, and apparently lost none of the precious bloom of true womanliness. But no sooner had the system become thoroughly established than a whole world of new social problems was discovered in connection with it. The primeval attraction of men and women for each other was not obliterated by the higher education. Conventionality stood aghast at the primitive and unrefined social life sometimes found within college walls. The social tone of these new colleges could not be much higher than that of the rural communities from which it came. It was not to be expected that students from progressive but uncultured communities should at once be transformed into dignified, self-restrained, conventionally proper young men and women.

Eastern scholars and teachers who went West to fill chairs in these colleges were shocked at the crudity which they met; in their eyes and in the eyes of the cultured New Englander all improprieties, unconventionalities, and crudities were the offspring of the vicious principle, coeducation. In New England, consequently, the pressure of social conservatism compelled a less radical solution of the impending problem of woman's education.

Following the type of Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith were founded still with the curriculum based on the old classical model of Harvard and Yale, but with living conditions and social restraints especially intended to preserve and develop womanliness. A liberal allowance of the classics, a little harmless inorganic science, some music or art by way of sweetening, and domestic labor as a reminder of housewifely occupations, constituted the regimen of the typical woman's college. No inducements or opportunities were offered for young women to enter any professions except literature and teaching. Curiously enough, few women could be found prepared to fill the professorships except those who had been coeducated at Oberlin, Michigan, and Cornell, and to them was set the task of preserving femininity by a harmlessly miscellaneous culture.

Meanwhile the great tide of scientific education had risen; the evolutionary theory had been proposed, attacked, accepted by the greater scientists. New fields were thus opened to men, which women as yet could not enter. That which they had supposed would insure to them the highest intellectual life no longer sufficed. In the larger coeducational colleges, laboratories and elaborate scientific equipments were rapidly acquired. Women, more conservative and true to the traditions of higher education, continued to choose classical courses long after science had become the most prominent feature of the younger institutions. Slowly the women's colleges were compelled to add zoölogy and physiology, laboratories and apparatus to their meager courses in science. In 1886 two thirds of the senior class at Wellesley graduated from the classical course; in 1890 more than one half took the degree of Bachelor of Science.

Competition with coeducational colleges made it evident that the women's colleges were offering almost no facilities for specialization and graduate study. To meet this deficiency, and yet to preserve the distinctive ideals of separate education, a new combination was devised. Bryn Mawr proposed to offer opportunities for advanced study similar to those afforded at Johns Hopkins and Cornell, but under social conditions and restraints such as characterized the women's colleges, thus securing womanliness at no cost of intellectual development. Harvard Annex offered approximately the same courses under the same professors as Harvard itself, but with meager equipment and social isolation. Barnard College, and recently the Yale graduate department, have recognized the principle of coeducation in a restricted form.

The tendency to provide the same kind of education for women as for men, and the desire to preserve that intangible quality, womanliness, were constantly at variance in all these different methods, producing some unexpected results. Here and there women who were coeducated specialized. Perhaps Ph. D.'s of Zurich, after a short and brilliant career, fell in love in a hopelessly feminine manner, married, and apparently wasted all . their intellectual achievements in cuddling babies and training the immigrant domestic; all this without any sign of discontent or domestic tragedy. On the other hand, as many sweet, feminine, docile creatures from the women's colleges, whose femininity had been preserved to ideal sweetness, went into law or medicine, declined to marry at all, and lived happy, unregretful lives.

The same contradictions were to be found among educated men. The farmer's boy who had taken a course in scientific agriculture refused to farm and went into journalism; the college professor's son failed in the classics, but made a fortune on a Western cattle ranch; the orthodox became the heterodox, and, behold, everything was topsy-turvy! Given a boy, a girl, and a curriculum results: The boy a poet, the girl a lawyer, and the curriculum something which had somehow missed fire! No anxious parent or zealous professor could be sure of the effect of a given training.

Into the midst of this uncertainty the elective system was projected by one of the most conservative of Eastern colleges; it said, "Let him follow his bent." The thought spread like contagion to the coeducational colleges, where traditions were less fixed, and gradually to the older men's colleges as well; but not to the women's colleges. If a girl followed her bent, who knew what might happen? She might become too "learned for the common uses of life," The fear that she will not marry was less alarming than the thought "men will not marry her." The elective system meant freedom of choice, the inevitable result of which is freedom of life. Intelligent men saw clearly that an intelligent, highly-educated woman might possibly hesitate to sacrifice the pure delights of scientific learning for the pettiness of domestic routine and the satisfactions of burden-bearing motherhood. Therefore she must not be too highly educated, lest freedom turn her from her proper sphere.

In our day the cry of alarm has again been raised; more and more women are coming up to the doors of the colleges; if intelligent women do not marry, the future of this race is uncertain, and civilization itself is in danger. Some would even make this question the test of the varied systems of education for women, in the hope of finding one which may be labeled, "Warranted not to divert women from marriage!" But the problem is neither so imminent nor so serious as many suppose. Two thirds of all women graduates marry; the one third who do not are an infinitesimal part of the thirty million five hundred thousand women in the whole United States. The one third in our day have, on the whole, as good a chance to obtain a suitable training as men in the same lines. They specialize and find growth and contentment in the sense of power and usefulness. It is not their destiny which should concern us, but rather the destiny of the other two thirds who do marry. The question arises, Does their college training bear so definite and satisfactory a relation to their afterlives? I fear not. It is constantly impressed upon a boy during these four years that he must find out what he is good for; he must either be fit or ready to be fitted to do something which will have a definite market value. But the destiny of the girl who goes to college is carefully concealed from her. During these four years, who says to her: If you marry, you will need biology, the sciences of life and reproduction; hygiene, the wisdom to attain and preserve health; sociology, the laws which govern individuals in society; chemistry, physics, economics, all the sciences which may help to solve the problems which the housewife must meet; literature and language, the vehicles of poetry and inspiration? No one has the courage to suggest any of these as suitable—nay, absolutely essential—to the successful fulfillment of her probable vocation in life. Young women are turned blindly adrift among a mass of subjects, with no guide but a perverted instinct, and with many a hindrance in the shape of tradition and ridicule. In all ages men have united in adoration of the dignity of domesticity and the sacredness of motherhood, yet any loving, foolish, untrained, inefficient creature has been held good enough to be a wife and mother. We do not expect a man to become a distinguished engineer or a professor of Latin by studying a little literature, history, music, and language; yet we expect a woman to undertake an occupation for which, in this age at least, a certain definite kind of training is necessary, without anything more applicable than "general culture,"

The want of co-ordination between training and the needs of life in the education of women has repeatedly brought into question the desirability of the higher education at all for a woman who is to return to the home. As a result, there is a distinct tendency to demand a differentiation in the education of women. The recent proposal of a new type of woman's college is, in fact, a demand for a separate technical school in which there shall be a liberal scientific training with special reference to their domestic occupations and functions.

This is, however, not a new idea. In all those State colleges in which agriculture and the mechanic arts are taught a similar problem and a like solution were presented. The farmers demanded that the agricultural colleges teach how to plow, sow, and reap, rather than how to think; as a result, many of these institutions are to-day little more than high schools, with manual training added. In others it was perceived that, to make a successful farmer or engineer, a man must have the power to think clearly, accurately, effectively on any subject. The best agricultural colleges give little beyond what may be called laboratory demonstrations in field and barn, while the most progressive engineering schools no longer attempt to turn out skilled mechanics. Teachers of these subjects prophesy the complete elimination of shop work and practical farm operations from university courses, and their relegation to the position of entrance requirements.

Shall, then, the woman's college be a technical school, where she may learn all the practical details of housekeeping and sanitary science? It is the same problem, and must also be answered in the negative. Technical schools, wherever outside the university atmosphere, show a fatal lack of breadth. Physicians with only the training of the medical school, engineers with na ideas beyond their own specialty, farmers who despise pure science, housewives who are only perfect housekeepers, are the inevitable product of a purely technical education.

While such propositions as this are being widely discussed, the true solution is coming by a natural process. Within the boundaries of the new universities a few courses are offered to meet the specific needs of women's occupations. What women need is not to know how to cook, and wash, and lay a table, but how to think out clearly, accurately, and effectively any problem which they may meet in every-day life. As the numbers of women in the universities increase, and the influence of educated wives and mothers is more widely felt, there will be an adaptation of university work to the needs of women as well as of men. The now scarcely perceptible tendency to emphasize the profession of wifehood and motherhood in its proper relations will be increasingly controlling in all education of women. Surrounded by the atmosphere of generous culture, molded by men and women of varied abilities, guided in the special preparation for her future, the young woman will soon be able to obtain as broad and as specialized a training as her profession shall require—a training which shall put her in touch with the best of the world for the benefit of her home and her children.

  1. Young men and young women have been taught together in the Maine Wesleyan Seminary, Kent's Hill, Maine, one of the best known classical and preparatory schools in New England, since at least 1828, and in the seminary at Cazenovia, N. Y., since 1830.—Editor Popular Science Monthly.